“I think this gentleman is waiting, ladies,” the man said.

I was caught a bit off-guard by this. I had been watching the bearded man read tarot cards for a not-unattractive redhead for the past few minutes, but thought I had gone unnoticed.

“You guys can go ahead, I…” I started to say when the bearded man cut me off. Across the table were a pair of good-looking (thirty-something?) brunettes. Many women in the Mid-Atlantic seem to have that Snow White look: dark black hair contrasting pale skin, complemented with high cheek bones. They seemed almost flirtatious, offering that amused look where the edges of your lips curve slightly—almost imperceptivity—upward. They had a certain look in the eyes, too, and a slight raising of both eyebrows. A very potent combination.

“I think this man was here first, I’ll do you ladies after,” the card-reader said in a way which was somehow both authoritative and friendly. His voice was not particularly deep—it was very mellow, in fact—but his demeanor was somehow so confident that everyone subconsciously knew that he knew what he was doing. At this, both women let out actual smiles and promised to come back in a few minutes. They then turned, keeping their eyes on us for a moment, went up the street, and were gone into the crowd.

The table was set up outdoors on one of the old brick streets of Edgewater. We were in the middle of the Festival, the town’s quadricentennial celebration. Surrounding us were booths and tents from every mom-and-pop store within twenty miles. White and brick colonial buildings lined both sides of the narrow street, standing like picturesque walls between us and ugly modernity.

I had stumbled into the Festival by accident; being new to the area, I wasn’t up to speed on all the local comings and goings, but I had had a good time nevertheless. The local coffee was good, the bookstore was impressive, and the woman making “Native American” jewelry had jugs the size of footballs, but there was something about the tarot table that intrigued me.

The man reading the cards seemed to be in his mid-thirties. He wore a multi-color hoodie (which fit the ascetic in a way I struggle to describe in writing) and had both a short haircut and a long, scraggly black beard, looking a bit like Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose. I assumed this was all part of the show of course, but found the presence commanding regardless.

“Have a seat,” he said.

I pulled up one of the metal lawn chairs and sat at the table, not really sure what to expect. I had had tarot readings done before, but those were all in cheesy, tourist-trap settings. This was somehow…something else. There was a fairly strong sea wind blowing in the air (we were near the coast, after all) but somehow the cards seemed unaffected, lying perfectly still on the table.

He introduced himself (for the sake of anonymity, I shall call him Mr. Smith) and asked if I had ever had a reading done before. Answering that I had, he handed me the deck with a bemused look. As I shuffled the cards, I did my best to concentrate and be reflective of my life as tradition mandates, but I could not help but notice that he was reading from a massive, old book. I could tell (with a strange sense of relief that I cannot explain) that it was written in English, but could not tell what the contents were.

After a few minutes, I handed back the cards to him. He closed the book and proceeded to shuffle them more himself before drawing the first card, the Tower.

He looked up at me, seeming actually startled for the first time, and asked me with what seemed like real concern if everything was okay. I wasn’t sure how to answer that. Things were difficult at work, and my personal life was as much of a trainwreck as it ever was, but I was alright for the most part. I was experiencing nothing like the sheer destruction depicted on the card.

Have you ever seen that episode of Seinfeld were George describes his life to a group of seniors? They are all left shocked (some in tears) by the tragedy of it all, but George himself is calm. When suffering is your resting state, it’s amazing what you can endure. That’s the value of low expectations. I tried to use this analogy with the reader, but he seemed…almost nervous as he proceeded.

The imagery of this card is striking and, in some depictions, traumatic. A medieval-looking tower is being struck by lightning, fire is emerging from the windows, and people (usually one man and one woman) are hurling themselves from the tower to the jagged rocks below. According to tradition, I would find out later that the Tower signifies a period of tragedy and destruction in one’s life. The card’s name is of course reminiscent of the Biblical Tower of Babel, in which God strikes down humanity for its arrogance. Despite my earlier calm, I could not help but feel uneasy.

He proceeded to lay out the cards in a Celtic Cross spread, or at least it started as a Celtic Cross spread; after a while, it became a messy arrangement that I hadn’t seen before. The rest of the reading itself was uneventful, and Mr. Smith seemed re-assured that though things were dark now (were they really that dark?), that life would improve gradually. “Just hang in there for a few more months.” Though I felt alright before the reading began, I still felt reassured by this.

Noticing that the pair of brunettes were circling back, I was getting ready to leave when Mr. Smith asked me to sit for a while. I did so, and the four-sided table was soon fully populated. The next few moments are a bit of a blur, but before long he was arranging cards in an even stranger spread, a square of some sort. The women were told to place their hands on the sides of the square facing them, whereas I was simply told to watch, eyes focused on the cards.

What happened next was even more odd. The wind began to blow on the cards for the first time since I had been there, flipping over a few of them in the middle of the spread. The Lovers, the Empress, the Fool, and Temperance were now looking us all in the face. The women once again wore that strange (mischievous?) smile, and the card reader scratched his beard as if in deep contemplation. I for one felt both apprehension and a strange excitement. It was as though I had slipped into a waking dream: I can clearly remember doing that which I describe here, but it does not feel as though I actually did them. It was as if I was a spectator watching my own actions.

One of the women, the slightly shorter of the two, placed her hand on my leg (just north of the knee) under the table. She just kept it there, continuing to look at the cards rather than at me. It was like when your girlfriend will take your hand without conscious thought, searching more for comfort than for intimacy. For my part, once the initial moment of surprise had passed, I felt strangely at ease, as though this was the most natural thing in the world.


“Belladonna, n.: In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.”— Ambrose Bierce

It was dark when I finally got out of bed. My hair was disheveled and my shirt was missing, but I felt good. It was neither a high, nor a strange emotional stimulus, but rather a new, higher state into which I had somehow stumbled. My companion, the woman who had felt my leg before, was still half-asleep, lying there bare-breasted but mostly covered by the green covers. The apartment I was in must have been hers, but I could still tell where I was by looking out the window. Edgewater is not a big town, and I could see St. Catherine’s spire peering over the rooftops a few blocks away. Like a lighthouse above a rock outcrop, it signaled the foolish wanderers of the dark to safety, and was unheeded at one’s peril.

It was when I started heading for the bathroom that I felt the first stab of pain. It was mild at first but grew more acute as I walked across the unfamiliar bedroom and finally sat down on the toilet. Before long, it was really stinging. Looking down, I noticed with a strange sense of detachment that there were several red, surgical scars running across my stomach and torso.

That’s when I realized I was dreaming.

I had never had a truly lucid dream before; that is, a dream where you know you’re dreaming. Every time I had made that realization before, I would wake up. This was different. It seemed like a dream but somehow…not a dream. Like something real was happening, but not exactly what my senses were telling me. I continued to feel the sharp pain, but now it was moving: up and down, back and forth across the lines on my stomach. Before long, it was even worse, but I shall spare the reader from those details.

The police found me in a stranger’s bathtub, clinging to life. Though I had been sewed back up, I was on the verge of severe hypothermia from the ice. Investigators would later tell me that one of my kidneys had been taken, and that my liver was also marked. It would’ve been stolen too had they not been interrupted.

Asking me how I came to be there, I answered truthfully that I had no idea. The last thing I remembered, I was sampling some of the local tea at the festival, and asked to use the bathroom on the second floor…